On May 26, 2002, a 13-year-old Malvika decided to fix her torn pair of jeans by sticking the edge with glue. In search of a blunt object to apply pressure to the glued edges of the denim, she ventured into the garage of her Bikaner home.
When she found the object she thought would do the trick, Malvika rushed with it to her room. Little did she know, it was a grenade. The family was unaware that an ammunition depot in the vicinity had exploded months ago, and bomb pieces lay scattered in many parts of the area.
The minute Malvika jabbed the grenade on the fabric, it exploded. Malvika lost both her hands in the explosion and sustained severe injuries to her legs including multiple fractures, nerve paralysis, and hypoesthesia.
She was bedridden for over 18 months and underwent multiple surgeries for over two years on her road to recovery.
“When I was bedridden for months, my biggest goal in life was to walk. Once I started walking with difficulty, my next big goal was to climb the staircase, then to operate the remote with my elbow. People around me have always been competitive, always in the race to clinch the first place in all aspects of life. But I don’t have any of those goals because I have seen failure at every step in life and learnt to rise above it,” says Malvika Iyer, speaking to The Better India.
Today, Dr Malvika Iyer, apart from a bomb blast survivor, is also a social worker, a PhD scholar, an international motivational speaker, a disability rights activist and a Global Shaper under the World Economic Forum.
This is her story.
Though Malvika was born in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu to B. Krishnan and his wife Hema Krishnan, she grew up alongside her older sister Kadambari in Bikaner, Rajasthan, one of the places her father who worked as an engineer at the Water Works Department, was transferred.
“I had a beautiful childhood,” says Malvika going down memory lane.
“My father was constantly transferred due to the nature of his job. But my mother, sister and I would stay put in Bikaner. He would visit us on the weekends. I loved travelling with my mum around the city, eating out, watching films and buying beautiful Rajasthani clothes,” she says.
A leader of her colony kids’ gang, she would often spend time kicking ball, flying kites, role play teacher-teacher and strutting down the ramp in her mother’s sarees. A lover of all things crafty and creative, she would also speed around the colony in roller-skates. She even trained in Kathak for over seven years!
The bomb blast changed her life. And though it snatched Malvika’s hands, it failed to rob her of her remarkable resilience.
She missed a year of schooling but did appear as a private candidate in the Secondary School Leaving Certificate examination in Chennai, with the help of a scribe. She became an overnight sensation when she secured a state rank among the private candidates with a whopping 483/500. She was invited to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to meet the then President of India, the late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who lauded the fighter.
Her M.Phil in Social Work at the Madras School of Social Work was a first class and distinction and even won her a ‘Rolling Cup’ for the Best M.Phil. thesis in 2012 which dealt with stigmatisation of people with disabilities.
One of the prime reasons for the choice of the subject stemmed from her personal experience as a young differently-abled woman who had to fight at every step.
“There were two different reactions from people. My family, friends and relatives, who knew, were shocked and hurt. But they were very supportive. They were happy I survived because even the doctors had given up on me,” she says.
But some people came to visit her in the hospital and would often talk in hushed whispers loud enough for her to hear. “They would stare at my bandaged hands and legs and say, What a terrible thing to have happened. She is a girl child. Who will marry her?”
“I think it was the first time I cried. And it wasn’t due to the agonising physical pain. They looked at me as if my life was doomed because I lost my limbs. And it has still not stopped. I still get stared at and pitied. Now I am very independent. I eat myself, I work. Besides tying my hair in a ponytail, I can do everything by myself.
The attitudinal barrier among the general public for persons with a disability still exists, and it is jarring.
I have accepted my life the way it is. What you may do perhaps in a matter of 30 seconds, will take me 10 minutes. But I am content with how my life is because this is literally my second chance at it.”
Malvika’s first step towards becoming a motivational speaker was when her story gained immense recognition, and she was invited to speak at TEDxYouth@Chennai in 2013. And ever since, there was no looking back.
She continued to captivate spectators at global platforms like United Nations in New York City, IIM Kozhikode, Norway, Indonesia and South Africa where she highlighted the importance of inclusion. In October 2017, she was invited to Co-Chair the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit held at Hotel Taj Palace, New Delhi.
Malvika has been part of several programmes that intend to raise awareness about the need for universal design, accessible public spaces and participation of disabled youth in promoting inclusive elections.
Advocating a positive body image, Malvika walked the ramp as a showstopper for NIFT and Ability Foundation in Chennai to emphasise the need for designing clothes with functionality and style for people with disability too.
Malvika, through her life and achievements, has become a role model. The fuel that keeps her going in life is the unending messages that grace her inbox by people from all walks of life.
“Someone once told me, they have a picture of me on their wall, another on wrote my name on their desk, to remind them not to give up when trials and tribulations become roadblocks. It gives them to strength to remember that if I could rise above failure and become an achiever, so can they. I cannot let down people who believe in me,” says Malvika.
This young woman may be an idol for thousands, but her role model continues to be her mother. “My mother pulled me out of one of the most difficult phases of my life. And she continues to inspire me even today. Me and her, we are the ‘A’ team. Becoming even half the person my mother is would be the biggest achievement of my life,” says Malvika.
Malvika’s outlines a few points that most people can learn while interacting with differently-abled persons.
Things to avoid:
Don’t stare. It applies to every person, be it with a disability or not regardless.
Being curious is alright, but asking a person you hardly know questions like “Were you always born like this?” is not okay.
If you see a person with disability struggling, ask them if they need help. Don’t force help by taking it for granted that they are disabled and in need of help.
Stop using restrictive terms for persons with disability. It is an irony that people in a wheelchair are referred to as wheelchair-bound. The wheelchair doesn’t bind them. It liberates them.
Things to do:
Share success stories of persons with disabilities. Be it at home, your school, college, workplace or community level.
Ask persons with disabilities about their interests in all areas, not just disability. Having their voice in every medium is important.
People with disabilities don’t come out often, as they don’t have enough opportunities. Can we work together to open platforms and avenues for them?